Mythbuster: Conversion therapy in China

Psychiatrist Jiang Lan on the pseudo-scientific practice of conversion therapy

In the summer of 2012, Alan Chambers, self-declared‘ex-gay’ and president of the fundamentalist Christian group Exodus International, announced that conversion or reparative therapy– the attempt to ‘cure’ same-sex attraction – was ineffective.

In officially atheist China, the pressure to create ‘ex-gays’ is largely social. LGBT men and women often volunteer themselves for ‘treatment’ with the blessing of their families.

In autumn last year, the Global Times ran a story about a young man who voluntarily sought a ‘cure’ for his homosexuality only to be subjected to electroshock treatment. While the ordeal killed his sexual desire almost entirely, it failed to quell his romantic feelings towards his own gender. While the Chinese Academy of Sciences removed homosexuality and bisexuality from the third iteration of Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders (CCMD-3), published in 2001, it still lists ‘ego-dystonic sexual orientation’ – essentially ‘unwanted’ attraction to members of the same sex. This has allowed conversion clinics to claim that they are providing a public service.

While not one of the 13 separate reports commissioned by the Chinese government since 1994 on the subject of human sexuality has endorsed conversion therapy, social pressure has meant that medical professionals shy away from weighing in on the debate. One of the few willing to take a stand is Jiang Lan, a consultant psychiatrist with the Psychiatric Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Jiang has conducted extensive research into homosexuality and mental health in China, and is one of the few trained psychiatrists willing to publicly self-define as ‘gay-friendly’. Last year, in collaboration with the Beijing LGBT Center, Jiang co-authored a report that drew some alarming conclusions about conversion therapy in China.

‘In 1989, based on international standards established in the 1950s, China classified homosexuality as a psychosexual disorder,’ says Jiang.‘That’s when conversion therapy took off. Investigating this area was a major undertaking. What we wanted to do was avoid more people getting hurt.

According to the LGBT Center’s 41-page report, clinics typically offer patients treatment programmes lasting anything from two to 21 weeks, most of which involve a combination of psychiatric evaluation, counselling, and drug and physical therapies. Most former patients interviewed underwent treatment voluntarily. Jiang admits that equating unhappiness with homosexuality is common even among psychiatrists.

‘Experiencing a certain degree of psychological pressure in life is normal,’ she says. ‘Gay, bisexual and straight people may all experience problems with their romantic lives and seek therapy.

‘For gay people, societal pressure and popular prejudice often amplify these feelings,’ Jiang continues, acknowledging that many former subjects of conversion therapy pulled out of her investigation as they found recounting their experiences too painful. ‘Out of a group of six former patients we interviewed, two were pressured into seeking conversion therapy by their parents, one was motivated by a break-up, two had initially sought counselling for other problems and one was terrified of contracting Aids.'

One subject had to participate in therapy sessions with both his parents present, before undergoing a course of injections. Another was asked to watch alternating gay and straight pornographic films while the doctor monitored his physical responses. One man described how his parents had signed him up for conversion therapy in his second year of high school, even though, by his own admission, at the time he ‘had no concept of homosexuality.’

While every subject’s story was unique, according to Jiang, they all had one thing in common. ‘After undergoing conversion therapy, not one of the people we spoke to had changed their sexual orientation.’ Jiang’s findings are backed up by mainstream scientific research. In 2001, the US Surgeon General issued a report stating that ‘there is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed.’

‘We simply don’t know if Chinese psychiatrists and counsellors genuinely believe in the effectiveness of conversion therapy,’says Jiang. ‘What we can say is that many resolutely believe that homosexuality is an illness. Some are so indoctrinated that they’ll even recommend hypnosis as a way for their patients to be able to perform sex with the opposite gender. ‘Imagine if someone went to a counsellor and said, “I’m straight, but I want to be gay. Can you help me?”’ says Jiang. ‘I don’t think many professionals would attempt that sort of treatment.’

In an effort to change these entrenched attitudes, the Beijing LGBT Center is offering intensive training for counsellors and psychiatrists in how to deal with queer clients. Organisers reported that 41 percent of trainees saw homosexuality as treatable prior to undergoing training. Afterwards, according to Jiang, almost all emerged ‘gay-friendly’ and willing to take LGBT clients.

Small successes like this have left gay rights activists optimistic that China is increasingly in-step with the developed world on gay rights. However, Jiang maintains that there is more work to be done.

‘During our research, we spoke to lots of gay people, and I was deeply moved by their struggles, their frankness, their pragmatism and their hope. We need to remove “ego-dystonic sexual orientation ”from CCMD-3, increase the visibility of queer people to reduce homophobia and inform the public of the ineffectiveness of conversion therapy. Debunking the theory isn’t enough. Quite simply, if there’s no demand, there’s no supply.’

Beijing LGBT Center Building B, Suite 2606, Xintiandi Plaza, Xibahe Nan Lu Unit 1, Chaoyang district (6446 6970, Open 10am-9pm Sat;10am-5pm Sun. Closed Mon-Tue, open the rest of the week by appointment. 朝阳区西坝河南路甲1号新天第B座2606室